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The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television

The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television

This unique, comprehensive introduction to screenwriting offers practical advice for the beginning writer, whether college student or freelancer.

June 1988
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
282 pages | 6 x 9 |

This unique, comprehensive introduction to screenwriting offers practical advice for the beginning writer, whether college student or freelancer. Based on their experience as professional writers and as teachers in a large, successful screenwriting program at California State University, Northridge, the authors provide a progression of assignments at manageable screenwriting lengths for beginners. They lead students through development of a premise, treatment, stepsheet, and, finally, miniscreenplay—essential elements in writing a longer script.

A major feature of the text is the use of many example scenes from contemporary and classic American films, such as On the Waterfront, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Godfather, The Graduate, Tootsie, and more. Other scenes are drawn from international films and dramatic literature. The criticism of these scenes invites students to develop their own comparative models, while simultaneously providing exposure to the central analytical terms of good dramatic writing.

The authors also place screenwriting within the larger tradition of dramatic writing in order to put the beginning writer in touch with the wealth of art, experience, and practical ideas the drama contains. They provide an up-to-date, practical discussion of marketing and copywriting a screenplay, with addresses of relevant professional societies. Most importantly, they never offer an ill-advised shortcut or restrict students to only one way of thinking about a character, situation, or scene. In The Understructure of Writing for Film & Television, the student's thought and creativity are central.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One. Getting on Your Feet
    1. Your Dramatic Heritage
    2. What Is a Dramatic Conflict?
    3. What Is a Scene?
    4. Camera Language and Format
  • Part Two. Developing Character and Conflict
    1. Introduction
    2. Establishing Character and Conflict
    3. Developing Character and Conflict to Crisis
    4. Achieving Crisis and Climax
    5. Handling Dialogue, Theme, Values, and Moral Urgency
    6. Writing the Miniscreenplay
    7. A Last Word
  • Appendix: The Market
  • Glossary of Film Terms
  • Index

An eminent veteran writer, director, and producer for radio and television, Ben Brady is professor emeritus and founder of the highly successful screenwriting program at California State University, Northridge. Lance Lee is a professional dramatist and instructor in screenwriting.


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When you sit down to write a screenplay, a teleplay, or a stage play, you are functioning as a playwright, as a dramatist. There are many differences in the possible treatment of a play because it is affected by (a) the type of theatre that is available for its production, (b) the use of a camera to make a film for theatrical release, or (c) the nature of a particular television show. Nonetheless, different though they may be in treatment, the underlying dramatic art of the play remains the same. Even the impulse to spectacular special effects, or spectacle, remains much the same, whether we are talking about the classics—plays written by eminently practical men of the theatre of their time—or contemporary achievements with the camera.

There is an immense gap in time between the opening of Aeschylus' Agamemnon 2,500 years ago and the filming of the long, full shots of wilderness that open Stanley Kubrick's modern science fiction classic 2001. But the dramatic impulses in the ancient playwright and popular contemporary filmmaker are alike—the only difference is in dramatic structure and technology.

Take, for example, the opening of Aeschylus' play in which the Watchman is looking for a signal to indicate that Troy has at last fallen and the long Trojan war come to an end.

SCENE: Argos, before the palace of King Agamemnon. The Watchman is posted on the roof of the palace.

WATCHMAN: ... Now let there be again redemption from distress, the flare burning from the blackness in good augury.

(A light shows in the distance)

Oh hail, blaze of the darkness, harbinger of day's shining, and processionals, and dance, and choirs of multitudes in Argos for this day of grace. Ahoy! I cry the news aloud....

Aeschylus was the first master of special effects. Since his story was staged outside and began at dawn, it is not inconceivable that "the flare" turned out to be the rising sun. It is an effect we can still admire! Or take Aeschylus' Libation Bearers in which he costumed the Greek chorus with such reality as Furies, the ancient vengeful goddesses with snakes in their hair, that his audience thought the real Furies had appeared, snakes and all, and recoiled in honor—just as we recoil today when Willie, in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, creeps across a bug-filled floor with insects in her hair to reach into an insect-filled slimy crevice to release Indiana from the chamber of descending knives. Today the camera brings us immediately and closely in on the action, but the distance between the audience and the event has always been defined less by technical resource than by emotion. In short, we the audience must have our emotions aroused in order to be involved, something ancient and contemporary playwrights have regarded as absolutely necessary for writing effective drama.

So as you begin to think dramatically, you will be learning an art that was virtually created by Aeschylus, practiced by Shakespeare and the polite dramatists of the eighteenth century, turned to his own use by George Bernard Shaw, and redefined by Henrik Ibsen for the modern era. Now that the art has been divided further by cinema and television, the list of practitioners includes men like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Inginar Bergman, François Truffaut, Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Towne, and your own particular favorite. In short, there is an immense repertoire of drama all written by practical men and women waiting for your exploration, a body of work rich in precedent and full of suggestion for you for almost any dramatic experiment you may want to try.

Now then, dwell for a moment on a word—playwright. It is an odd word with that wright in it. A wright is a craftsman, someone who makes and assembles things, a practical man par excellence. Drama has always had to appeal to a wide taste, to please many different tastes at one time. It is competitive. It has had to win prizes or celebrate divine virtues to justify itself or to make money to support the companies creating it and the theatres displaying it. Even when patronized, it has had to be popularly successful. For thousands of years people have gathered to witness a play performed. They assembled in the open theatres of Greece and Elizabethan England, in the court theatres of baroque Europe, in the public theatres and first small experimental theatres in the nineteenth century, and now in our own modern theatres and cinemas. Television has expanded these audiences into the millions. So public and responsive an art must be practical; therefore, the playwright is the most practical artist within the great arts.

There is much to be said about the mechanics of the practical, down-to-earth nature of drama. Most of this text is largely devoted to that end. Never forget that drama happens before our eyes, on a stage or on a screen, as a visual, immediate, real experience, dependent on the presence of an audience whose attention it must hold and whose expenditure it must justify, or it is a failure as a drama.

That said, no playwright ever made his mark who was not also a man of vision. The central, most difficult lesson for a playwright to learn is how to embody his own vision in a practical play for stage or screen or television. Without such vision, there's not much reason to present or attend a play. This is true whether we are talking about a Saturday afternoon adventure flick or the premiere of a new drama on the stage of a resident theatre.

Consider the popular action-adventure science fiction Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas. He had a vision of what a film would look like, what new special effects could achieve, and he revolutionized the film industry by bringing it into the computer era. But such effects alone would not have held our attention through three films. Sooner or later we would have asked ourselves what they were all for, if they helped tell a story or just got in its way. Lucas knew this, and using computerized special effects and the disguise of a science fiction thriller, he presented in Star Wars a spectacular vision of failure and redemption in which an abandoned son redeems a fallen father.


“[This] book is written out of first hand experience; the words of an old pro. It sticks to practical reality without smothering the quest for creativity with arbitrary rules; the authors respect the artist as well as the craftsman. I recommend it without reservation.”
Frank Pierson

“If any aspiring screenwriters read this book—and they all should— I look forward to seeing a good number of well-written films.”
Larry Gelbart

“I wish this book had been printed when I started as a writer. It would have been a tremendous help.”
Aaron Spelling


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